confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Knowledge

Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory. #SAIConf2017

The second paper I gave at the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in Belfast recently is an offshoot of my work on the impact of research performance measure on academic practice and identity.  The abstract is as below:

What would happen if we viewed Irish higher education through the lens of southern theory. Southern theory argues that dominant epistemologies appear as if from no particular geohistorical location, so pertaining to be universal. Yet, these epistemologies are reflections of and inherent in the imperialism and colonialism of the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America. Universal knowledge is, in fact, the imperialism of Europe’s parochialism1&2 and universities have been implicit in epistemic violence as a basis for colonial power3. We need to ask whether, in interpreting Irish higher education, we have simply imported the thematic concerns of the metropole, accepted a subaltern position, and so neglected to develop a unique perspective that takes seriously Ireland as a post-colony4.

What might an Irish sociology of Higher Education look like?

  • This sociology would acknowledge that it speaks from somewhere, emerges from a particular geohistorical experience of colonialism, settler colonialism, nationalist nation-building, and globalization;
  • It would seek to re-story the history and dynamics of higher education in Ireland from that perspective, working with, beyond, and against the dominant concepts of the metropole;
  • It would speak between epistemologies5, critiquing both the continuing coloniality of power and nationalist ideology – an ecology of knowledge6.

1Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

2Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

3Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

4Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.

The paper was presented as a sociological story,

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  1. A BOOK

I open the newly arrived book, running my hand across its cover. I am conscious about how opportune its publication is, arriving when my mind is turned again to considering the political economy of higher education. I am working on a research proposal – how research performance management impacts on academic practice and identity in the more peripheral zones of Europe. Poland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Iceland, Slovenia, Croatia…Ireland, all buffeted by similar forces of the knowledge economy and globalisation, pushing us to reconsider the purposes and practices of knowledge production and dissemination, of knowledge work itself. These are well-worn tropes, and Simon Marginson is a well-known articulator of how higher education is becoming globalised, how it is being wrenched from its national moorings.  As a scholar, I am committed to a notion of knowledge work as a common good. So, the title of Marginson’s new book “Higher Education and the Common Good” is obviously attractive. I know his work, have followed its development over time, informed by his key concepts I have been able to look beyond the immediate actions of managers, beyond the demands I place upon myself to be productive in specific ways, and can see the more general dynamic forces at play in the intimate lifeworlds of my colleagues and friends.

But my reading is disrupted. My assuredness in my epistemological position has ben challenged, has been questioned. I have always been uncertain about the way these texts, these sociologies of higher education, are empty of life, empty of the passions and pain endured by flesh and blood people. I have never been properly able to connect the misery, the excited anticipation of my own heartfelt life as an academic in their people-less words. But this is a different disruption. I read Marginson’s book as if two people. One scans the words, the familiarity of the conceptual framing, and familiarity of the argumentative flow. It describes my world as I have come to experience it. But the other reader focuses in on core words and raises a hand, telling me to pause and consider, consider what perhaps is also being said here, something fundamental.

Although he seeks to provide a long historical and broad geographical view of higher education and its relation to the common good, he admits that the animating model of a globalised higher education is that of the United States. Here he proposes that the idea of mass higher education itself is specifically given by the American history of higher education expansion, noting its beginning in the ‘land grant’ colleges initiated under Lincoln and the subsequent expansion following WW2, and the institutionalisation of America as a global power in part through its universities and colleges.

Although this is the kind of historical narrative I am familiar with, and have been comfortable with, it now disturbs and upsets. In this narrative of America’s internal expansion of higher education there is a complete absence of how America itself and so its system of higher education was founded upon processes of appropriation, dispossession, enslavement and violence.



Each morning I pass the original buildings of the university – the quadrangle. Everyone here knows its image, used in all marketing materials, often alongside the newest biotechnology labs. Old and modern in equal measure.

The front cover of the university’s strategic report, Vision 2020, depicts the ‘quadrangle’, a semiotic reminder of Galway’s origins as one of the “Queen’s Colleges”. Without any sense of reflexive pause Vision 2020 notes that the institution was established in the context of the Irish Famine. The running of this statement alongside its corporate text of excellence and achievements should, I feel, cause a pause, a moment of reflection.

In 1845 the foundation stones of Queen’s College Galway were being laid at the edge of the city. From the new Quadrangle building, in 1849, the first intake of 68 students looked out across empty fields and a city ravaged by fear. But, the text reads, the University founders did not allow those challenges to limit their ambitions. Continuing with this heroic narrative the document proclaims that their work began a tradition of scholarship and discovery that would confront the problems of the day, and empower their city and region to prosper. Prosperity on top of misery.

The historic tragedy of the famine becomes, in this institutional document, no more than a marker of heritage. It hides the way imperial epistemologies work. The famine was unique in 19th century Europe and occurred in the centre of the largest empire on earth, amongst those, following the Act of Union, who were UK subjects like those in London, Birmingham, Cardiff or Glasgow. The historical development of Ireland, integrated as it was in the Imperial economy, made it a net exporter of goods, specifically foodstuffs. Consequently, the famine happened in the midst of an expansion of Irish food exports.



Voices cluster around my ears – Mignolo, Bhambra, Grosfoguel, Anzaldua, Santos, Quijano. These are not the names I am used to in reading and thinking a sociology of higher education.

They plant troubling questions in my mind, make my reading treacherous, unsettling. Their arguments are unfamiliar but potent, persuasive, touching.

Once familiar concepts and frameworks are reworked, rendered fresh by conversation with the liberating vocabulary of my new interlocutors – coloniality of power, empires of the mind, epistemic fundamentalism, border thinking. It is dizzying, fundamental, exciting.



A different book cover, but a similar set of omissions. Patrick Clancy’s comparative study of Irish higher education is certainly ambitious in its attempt to map the development and expansion of contemporary Irish higher education. He notes how the sector has become a focus for sustained attention following the economic and financial crises. The thesis is now predictable – higher education is being reformed in face of the knowledge economy and globalisation, both economic globalisation and the integration of national economies into global markets, including that of higher education.

Clancy’s narrative is curiously ahistorical. Admitting to a form of methodological nationalism, Irish higher education begins in 1921. The idea of universities being constitutive elements of empire and colonialism, let alone settler colonialism, is absent from the account:

“While universities and other higher education institutions are creatures of the nation state, increasingly analysts feel that a single-country perspective fails to provide an adequate frame of reference for understanding the dynamic of higher education in contemporary societies”

Was it ever the case that higher education in Ireland was not coterminous with a globalisation of power and economy?

Was it ever the case that what might be considered Irish higher education was primarily a construct of the nation state?



There is a specific history of empire that makes sense of the awful condition of famine when a university was founded in Galway, when rampant want and death coexisted with the export of foodstuffs, and the legislated neglect of imperial subjects. It is a history of Ireland’s integration into a British imperial economy as England expanded west, Ireland incorporated into England’s Atlantic Economy that would include the trade in human souls whose surplus value would make possible the American dream of mass higher education. The transformation of a potential independent Irish economy into the producer of foodstuffs specifically to feed imperial expansion, dispossession, and terror. By 1845 the Irish economy could not feed its own people and feed imperial expansion.



As well as foodstuffs for Empire, Ireland became the locale for the production of imperial epistemologies, Ireland as part of what Andrew Porter calls EMPIRES OF THE MIND.

– Ireland, simultaneously a partner in the Union and subject nation, supplied large numbers of imperial administrators.

Between 1855-1863 24% of all Indian civil service recruits were from Ireland because the Queen’s Colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway had a particular role in supplying administrators to the Indian Civil Service.

Archives can be wonderful places, revealing treasures. One such treasure, presaging the current obsession with performativity, was the 1901 Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland. We see the President of University College Galway defending the performance of the college against sever criticism on the basis of its contribution to the Indian Civil Service

“Galway graduates, for example, were prominent in the Indian medical and engineering services as well as filling various imperial and quasi-imperial positions…”

We can hear these words echoing through the centuries, repeated now in university league tables and parliamentary committees.



The construction of an Irish sociology of higher education, as distinct from a sociology of Irish higher education, is not the articulation of a new national(ist) history. While I argue that it is important to understand contemporary political economy of higher education through the lens of Ireland as a post-colony, I do so in order to locate it in broader global networks, and thus not to reify and homogenise the idea of Ireland.

In proposing that we ‘speak from somewhere’, from the condition of Ireland, I speak from the particularity of the West of Ireland. This is not a purely geographical location. The West is a creation of the coloniality of power, a first colony in European Atlantic expansion, caught up in the hegemonic contestation between ascendant Spanish and Portuguese empires. The West is a consequence of Elizabethan and especially Cromwellian dispossession, expulsion and violence that subalternised Ireland and particularly the West – a process continued in numerous ways in the context of a post-colony.

Ramon Grosfoguel notes that,

“The Western/masculinist idea that we can produce knowledges that are unpositioned, unlocated, neutral, and universalistic is one of the most pervasive mythologies in the modern/colonial world”

Instead, we need to account for the geopolitics of our knowledge production. Inherent in this proposition is the suggestion that thinking Irish higher education otherwise is a project of epistemic decolonisation.


Ballantyne, T. (2005) ‘The Sinews of Empire: Ireland, India and the construction of British colonial knowledge’, in Terence McDonagh (Ed) Was Ireland a Colony? Economics, politics and culture in nineteenth-century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Clancy, P. (2015) Irish Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marginson, S. (2016) Higher Education and the Common Good. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

Mignolo, W., D. and Tlostanova, V. (2006) Theorizing from the Borders: Shifting the geo-and body politics of knowledge. European Journal of Social Theory, 9(2): 205-221.

O’Hearn, D. (2005) ‘Ireland in the Atlantic Economy’, in Terence McDonagh (Ed) Was Ireland a Colony? Economics, politics and culture in nineteenth-century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.




Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.


Táim ag dul go Béal Feirste – I’m off to Belfast


The library of El Escorial Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson  CC BY-SA 3.0

I am off to Belfast/Béal Feirste soon for the Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Conference.  I will write more about the papers and the conference later.

I will be giving two papers this year:

‘Biographies of Internationalisation’: Methodological reflections on using the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) to capture international student’s discourses and policy narratives – Speaking to Policy Speaking to Institutions (written with my colleague Lisa Moran)

How, as sociologists, do we speak to policy makers, and in this case to institutional leaders in higher education? And how do we do this in a way that troubles dominant discourses? This paper focuses upon a qualitative, Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) study of ‘knowledge cultures’ (Tsouvalis et al. 2000), and narratives of internationalisation that are embedded within international students’ biographies. Drawing upon qualitative materials from a biographical research study of 6 students categorised as ‘international’ in one Irish university, the paper illustrates areas of confluence and convergence in international student narratives about internationalisation and ‘storylines’ that appear in Irish policy on internationalisation. The argument in this paper is threefold; firstly, that the BNIM approach (Wengraf 2001) which elicits participants’ memories, knowledge and everyday ‘life worlds’ goes farther than some ‘conventional’ approaches to interviewing in capturing how international students recreate international identities, ‘negotiate’ insider/outsider distinctions and processes of stereotyping and labelling. Secondly, it is argued that how international students interpret internationalisation as a ‘lived experience’ and express these understandings through narrative is intricately bound to how they negotiate international identities. Thirdly, we argue that the kinds of narrative generated by the BNIM approach enables us to ‘trouble’ dominant discourses of internationalisation by inviting an ethic of openness to the ‘other’ and learn from rather than just learn about the experience of internationalisation students. Such an approach helps us to think higher education ‘otherwise’.

Tsouvalis, J., Seymour, S. and Watkins, C. (2000) ‘Exploring knowledge cultures: Precision Farming, Yield Mapping, and the Expert/Farmer Interface’ Environment and Planning A 32(5): 909-924

Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing Biographic, Narrative and Semi-Structured Approaches London: Sage


Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory.

What would happen if we viewed Irish higher education through the lens of southern theory? Southern theory argues that dominant epistemologies appear as if from no particular geohistorical location, so pertaining to be universal. Yet, these epistemologies are reflections of and inherent in the imperialism and colonialism of the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America. Universal knowledge is, in fact, the imperialism of Europe’s parochialism1&2 and universities have been implicit in epistemic violence as a basis for colonial power3. We need to ask whether, in interpreting Irish higher education, we have simply imported the thematic concerns of the metropole, accepted a subaltern position, and so neglected to develop a unique perspective that takes seriously Ireland as a post-colony4.

What might an Irish sociology of Higher Education look like?

  • This sociology would acknowledge that it speaks from somewhere, emerges from a particular geohistorical experience of colonialism, settler colonialism, nationalist nation-building, and globalization;
  • It would seek to re-story the history and dynamics of higher education in Ireland from that perspective, working with, beyond, and against the dominant concepts of the metropole;
  • It would speak between epistemologies5, critiquing both the continuing coloniality of power and nationalist ideology – an ecology of knowledge6.

1Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

2Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

3Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

4Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.





Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.




Primera página de la Biblia del oso, traducción al castellano de Casiodoro de Reyna, basilea, 1569.

Silenced societies are, of course, societies in which talking and writing take place but which are not heard in the planetary production of knowledge managed from the local histories and local languages of the ‘silencing’ [the dominant powers] Walter Mignolo referring to Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages


Recently I gave a presentation on “Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship”.  An earlier iteration of this was presented at a conference in Dublin and posted here.  Below I present the text of this presentation.  It deals with the way contemporary research performance management practices result in what I and my colleagues call ‘epistemic closure’.  That is we are concerned that these management practices, related as they are to the growing dominance of English as the primary means of scientific communication, and to the determining influence of global higher education rankings and the power of the major academic publishing companies, are closing down what can be considered legitimate knowledge.

My presentation is based on early stage conceptualization for a cross European research project looking at the impact of research performance management on academic practice and identity.

In this sense it approaches the broad theme of mobility in terms of the mobility of academics, and the mobility of knowledge. That is, instead of academics looking at ‘others’ mobilities and migrations, it looks at the observers; it turns the critical gaze upon systems of higher education and academic practice in the context of dominant narratives of internationalisation of higher education.

Specifically, it began life at a conference in Poland where my colleagues Marcin Starnawski and Marcin Gołębniak presented a paper discussing the increasing pressure on Polish academics to publish in ‘international’ academic journals, where international translates as English language. They raised questions about a) the transactional costs of this national and institutional pressure (e.g. the capacity to become proficient in high status academic English – who does this, and who does not, and what are the consequences of this), and b) what impact this might have on internal academic discourse, and the issue of the possible un-translatability of key terms of debate.

This has led to cooperation around developing a research project that has now involved:

  • Exploratory empirical research in Ireland, Poland and Portugal
  • Seminars and conference presentations in Ireland and Poland
  • Work on a number of journal articles
  • Development of a COST Action proposal

Although this presentation draws largely on the Irish material, it resonates closely with that found in both Poland and Portugal.

Because of where I am giving this presentation (Galway, Ireland), it takes academics working largely through the medium of Irish in the humanities as a critical case of the phenomenon of research performance management. While it is not an exploration of the position of Irish in wider Irish society, it does touch on the contested nature of Irish as a public rather than private good.

Fundamentally we are arguing that research performance management as we often experience it is to do with more than workload, but also with knowledge work itself.


So, where to start?

Reading these two documents recently I was struck by what now appears as their naivity.

The first report, “Advancing Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Ireland”, published in 2007, sought to make the case for the humanities and social sciences in the context of dominant discourses of the knowledge economy. There was a kind of strategic accommodation here, of accepting the terms of political debate – that is the very idea of the knowledge based economy, and argue the positive case for the humanities and social sciences within the logic of this discourse.

6 years later, the Higher Education Authority produced a report that seems to have come from a more innocent time, particularly when looked at from post-2008. It argued that there was no need for Irish higher education to emulate the UK and tie performance management to crude indicators of research output. Indeed, it argued that it was and should be possible for the arts and humanities to be judged on the basis of the wide array of outputs and not merely those amenable to simple statistical capture or the algorithms of the major publishing companies.


Yet, what we see is our own institutions, in the absence of clear guidance otherwise, reproducing all the known negative effects of the Research Excellence Framework.

It is as if our institutional leaders are ignorant of, or simply ignore the findings from reviews such as this.

We can view this as a local manifestation of an increasingly globalised model of higher education – of a global political economy of higher education.

Looking across Europe, as with much of the world, we see certain regular systemic features of this political economy:

  • Government support for increased participation in higher education as part of an economic strategy to maximize the stock of human capital in aid of securing economic competitive advantage in a global economy
  • Reduction in direct funding from governments whilst promoting a process of mass higher education in conjunction with competitive funding streams and diversified income streams (e.g student fees)
  • Government steering of research priorities to meet economic needs, specifically prioritising certain STEM areas that are perceived to be close to the market, and using ideas of market readiness to evaluate all research.


slide1We are all fairly familiar with key features of the global higher education landscape as it relates to research selectivity.  We can conceive of research selectivity as a site for struggles over external and internal visibility, particularly for semi-peripheral higher education systems and for more peripheral disciplines.


  • A defining characteristic of the political economy of higher education is that of STATUS COMPETITION – how well are we all doing in the global league tables
  • In other words institutional managers are concerned with visibility within the status economy of higher education. Politicians are concerned about this and gear funding priorities around securing greater visibility in the status economy as well as aligning research to economic requirements.


This largely takes the form of research performance management:

  • Management practices that increasingly seek to align individual CVs and research concerns with institutional objectives, objectives aimed at increasing the institution’s external visibility – this introduces a degree of moral coercion: if I don’t improve my visibility will this impact negatively on my institution and therefore on my colleagues
  • Alignment is enacted through various performance management practices: PMDS – annual reviews – institutional research audits – etc.



I want to present some of our initial reflections through Niamh’s Story. Niamh is a condensation of academics who work predominantly through the medium of Irish and who participated in our pilot study. However, while here I focus on Irish language scholarship, they mirror almost exactly the views expressed by the scholars from academics we have spoken to in Poland and Portugal, in a range of disciplines. It also resonates with evidence found in scholarship in critical translation studies, critical linguistics, and global English.   What I share with you here is obviously tentative, and emergent.

Initial inductive analysis of the pilot project interviews indicates a number of themes/motifs that animate academics’ experiences and concerns:

  • Although the time periods associated with the production process of academic publishing may be stretched out, with delays between submission and final publication, this sits within a context of time-pressure
  • Institutions and individual scholars are increasingly conscious of the desire to improve their relative position in annual university rankings
  • This can be exacerbated by national and institutional systems of research performance management. Improvement in research performance are evaluated over short time frames, generating demands to produce measurable outputs quickly
  • Because the bibliometrics privilege English language publications, and privilege journal articles, this can lead to increase in outputs in English as the PRIMARY language of academic output
  • This may also transform disciplinary ways of producing and disseminating knowledge.
  • Within the intensified environment of academia, scholars largely experience this systemic phenomenon as private troubles rather than public issues.

This is not about language itself, but about how a scholar relates to epistemic communities, including linguistic communities. It is about the link between the generation of knowledge and the people you commune with in order to do that, to push the boundaries of knowledge. In this way of thinking and being decisions about form of output, vehicle for communication, and language of communication are determined by this relationship to epistemic communities. This is posed as potentially different to the institutionally determined way of being, which is driven by publishing companies bibliometrics, and university rankings.

She sought personal, individual strategies to negotiate her way through the tensions of an institutionally managed CV on the one hand and being true to herself on the other. There were no collective or solidaristic spaces where these concerns could be mobilised as public issues. She spoke about how the various systems of performance management and audit undermined the capacity of academics to work collectively, and so either rely on individual strategies, or appear supine,


…the system keeps everybody in a constant state of anxiety,

trying to meet sometimes reasonable, but often

undreasonable targets across so many different

arenas of academic activity…

 As my colleague Marcin Starnawski put it, we are so busy complying with the Regime of Compliance that we don’t pause for critical reflection and so create the conditions for discussing this as a public issue rather than a personal problem.

There was a very real sense that research performance management, and feeling herself under the gaze of performance metrics Niamh managed her efforts so that she was increasing her English language publications. To make herself more visible to the institution meant making herself less visible to the epistemic communities that gave meaning to her work. This is a zero-sum game. To write more in English means to write less in another language; to create “balance” is subtractive. 

If I was to look at the ratio over the last ten years

in my own academic writing life,

the balance between writing in Irish and writing in English,

writing in English for international academic publishers,

and writing and producing material for local publishers,

it’s definitiely the direction of English,

definitely the pull is towards international publishers rather than Irish publishes;

and the presumption there is that it is superior.

This alludes to linguistic hierarchies of knowledge, even of which languages can convey knowledge, be knowledgeable. In a sense, under the dominance of English, all other languages become minor languages

Fundamentally, Niamh felt that research performance management undermined her relationship with epistemic communities, and therefore with both the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. The pressure to publish in certain kinds of English language journals broke the connection between her, meaningful exchange of knowledge, knowledge production, and authentic scholarship.


Clearly, what we are presenting here relates to wider concerns about:

  • The intensification of academic labour
  • About forms of management practice that devalue and undermine ideas of academic freedom
  • And the privatisation of knowledge that are very closely associated with the dominance of major academic publishers in determining what ‘counts’ as valued knowledge. Lets remember that the various ranking systems and metrics are controlled by profit seeking private companies.

 In the guise of technical issues of how best to measure research performance I believe we are actually seeing a transformation in what counts as knowledge and knowledge production. However, this is not being done as a result of public debate, not articulated in the public sphere. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but I believe it does, as it concerns what the role of academic scholarship is in relation to human flourishing, and concerns the values by which we think life should or could be lived. 

But I want to touch on something in my conclusion that relates specifically to academics working with what are often called minority languages, but also makes sense in relation to large language communities that are made peripheral by a zero sum approach to research performance management as it articulates with the dominance of English.


I want to briefly discuss this in relation to concepts used by the Portuguese academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos, specifically the idea that current systems of research performance management act as forms of epistemic dominance and violence, even that the imperialism of certain ideas of what counts as knowledge constitute epistemicide, the death of what Niamh referred to as an ecology of research and Santos calls an ecology of knowledge.


  • Research selectivity, as I have discussed it here, can be seen to be re-ordering Europe (and I will keep my remarks to Europe) in relation to hierarchies of knowledge
  • Clearly certain domains of knowledge, those deemed applied or close to the market, are privileged over more speculative knowledge practices. This is very much why the humanities is under such pressure, but also areas of epistemic practice.
  • The linguistic dimension of this new terrain is illuminating
  • We can see from Niamh’s account that her practice is indeed one of an ecology of research or an ecology of knowledge. She regularly speaks from between Irish and English, both seen as capable of articulating knowledge
  • However, the intense pressure she and her colleagues experience to render their research amenable to only certain audiences and certain forms of publication (where the mode of publication appears to be more important than the rigour of scholarship) works to make invisible Irish as a legitimate language of knowledge, in deed as not being a knowledgeable language in its own right. To different degrees the same can be said of Polish, or Finnish, or Latvian, or Hungarian, or Russian, or possibly French and German.
  • So, the Irish language, literature, artefacts can be objects of scientific inquiry, but Irish cannot be a legitimate medium for thinking.
  • The increasing requirement to produce or reproduce work in English, carries with it the inequality of languages, the suggestion that English has a unique capacity to articulate all meaning adequately. English is presumed to have the robustness to convey meaning originally conceived in a different linguistic and cultural frame.
  • This attitude leads, I believe, to epistemic closure.

This is not an argument against English as a shared language of scientific exchange, but it is an argument against a diminished ecology of research, and a call to think higher education otherwise, and not to collude in epistemicide.

Research Performance Management: linguistic, knowledge, and disciplinary concerns – an Introduction



Research performance management,  such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). This is a process that is also driven by the development of a European Research Area committed to aligning higher education research primarily to economic growth and job creation. Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005). However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education.

Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research performance management and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit from being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? How is this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines? The legitimacy of the humanities, for instance, has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented.  Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity?

We feel it is important that research looks at three areas in particular:

  • Linguistic impact as a consequence of the prioritisation of publishing in international high impact academic journals, which normally translates as publishing in English,
  • Disciplinary impact in terms of how practices that often define particular disciplines may be transformed due to the pressure to produce particular kinds of knowledge and research outputs. In particular, this would relate to disciplines or subject areas that have become less prestigious as a result of dominant models of research performance,
  • Impact on the kinds of knowledge produced by research activity. This refers to the way certain forms of knowledge may be marginalised through research performance management practices. This can refer to more indigenous concepts that are not easily translated into English idioms without a fundamental loss of meaning, or knowledge that is seen as not amenable to ‘quick hit’ results or market application (including cultural and heritage industries).




Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling Irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.


Posthuman exploration of learning as an exercise in open scholarship

Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development

 [This draft is being shared in the spirit of open scholarship. If you would like to offer observations on the work please do so via 

This draft should not be quoted without the permission of the author.]

Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Over some months I have shared my reading and thinking related to a writing project that drew on practice and posthuman theories to inquire into the nature of learning.  You will find these posts here,  here and here.  My blog has been a space for sharing my ongoing intellectual work in an open way, and sharing its messiness.  In this full public draft you will see how I have built directly on my previous posts, but also how I have further developed the emergent ideas. The blog has thus acted as a place to rehearse my writing.  I would welcome any feedback as a kind of open source review of this draft.



When we think of learning we usually think of the brain, of learning as a primarily cognitive activity. When we think of higher education learning this assumption becomes even more evident. This cultural default is seen in the distinction offered by the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, where knowledge is the weightier and more important of the two, especially in its uncoupling from the physical. And if this is how we habitually imagine knowledge what of the spaces within which higher education knowledge is acquired? Do we imagine them as spaces of the mind?

I recall standing in one such space. This was not the objective almost abstract space often referred to in ‘how to’ teach texts. This was a particular space, new to me but very familiar to its inhabitants. I looked out from my corner and observed rows of benches arranged in parallel lines. Along each row were stools, clustered in pairs along one long edge of the bench. Computer screens and keyboards took up some of the space in front of the stools. There were instruments on the benches that I will later learn are ‘vortexes’ that vibrate and help to mix solutions in test tubes. Facing the stools across the wooden surface are shelving that stretch along the other long edge, forming a kind of wall. And on the shelving stood beakers, and pots, and books. At one end of the bench stood a sink, and a weighing machine enclosed in a glass cabinet. All benches were the same. Elsewhere in the room were other machines, other computer screens and keyboards, other kinds of measuring equipment, and a large screen at the front of the room where the lecturer’s slides were displayed. The first impression was the shier quantity of machines or equipment of different kinds. This is different from the learning spaces I am used to where, apart from a computer and some form of table, it is paper and books that are mostly present. My social scientific space is not the “…place densely stacked with instruments and materials and populated by researchers” which represents the scientific space as noted by Karin Knorr Cetina (Cetina, 2009, p. 25). I was immediately fascinated by the array of equipment and what this meant for the activities I observed. This was not the social science space I was accustomed to but a pharmacology laboratory practical. The spatial arrangement obviously says something about the structure and culture of knowledge and the signature pedagogies of chemistry and pharmacology (see Shulman, 2006 for discussion of signature pedagogies).

Also in the room were bodies, lots of bodies. In fact a little over 50 bodies. Initially the social distinction between the bodies was not apparent since all wore white laboratory coats. The distinctions become clearer as the bodies took up their allocated places. ‘Students’ were defined by sitting in pairs on the stools, forming ‘work stations’ in their relationship with that part of the bench, and shelving, and computer. The benches were thus populated in this way. At the sides of the room were others who were not that distinct from those who were obviously the students in this setting. They were similarly young, similarly dressed. While they were ‘students’ in the sense that they were conducting postgraduate studies, in this particular setting they are ‘instructors’ and so are socially different to the undergraduate students arranged around their workstations. There was one other person also dressed in a white laboratory coat. Their status as ‘lecturer’ was more clearly marked, being older than both ‘students’ and ‘instructors’, dressed differently beneath the laboratory coat, and perhaps importantly, standing at the front of the room by the screen looking down across all the benches.

My own position in the room was not neutral; it was not without some regard. I was there to see what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines in my university. My role as an academic/educational developer meant that I worked with lecturers across the disciplines to ‘develop’ their academic practice, particularly in relation to teaching and learning in higher education. But I come from a particular background, from a sub-discipline in the social sciences. What exactly did ‘teaching’ mean when this became the object of reflection for a chemist, and in this instance in the discipline of pharmacology?   It was developmental in that I felt the need to observe disciplinary teaching in order to better understand the context of practice that would be reflected upon by a colleague taking one of our courses. But it also related to a key methodological approach in academic development, that of ‘decoding the disciplines’ (Middendorf & Pace, 2004). If I was to support colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to grasp the pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 2006)needed to support student disciplinary learning, I needed to understand the pedagogic context of practice and its specific disciplinary modes. And this indexes the ontological terrain upon which I stood and observed the pharmacology laboratory practical before me. My observation was filtered, for the most part, through the lens of constructivist discourses of learning that placed the student learning experience as central to pedagogical concerns (Ramsden, 2006). I was attuned to trying to understand how the students went about the business of learning in this context. The heterodox view in academic development is that better understanding of the student experience of learning leads to better teaching.

But, as I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory and posthumanism. I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014). Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the laboratory activity (Pickering, 2010). That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds. I found myself asking the following questions: What would learning look like if we went beyond the constructivist paradigm? How useful might it be to explore learning as socially embedded and distributed across human and non-human domains? And what implications would this have for my own practice as an academic/educational developer?

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation. As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education. It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning, which are distinctly humanist. As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference. Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related. I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human. In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice. Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

I begin by outlining the activity undertaken in the pharmacology laboratory practical I observed. This works to introduce two initial readings of the situation – one based on the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004), and the other ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2005). This allows me to outline the doxa of my practice as an academic/educational developer and set the ground for extending this humanist approach. The next two sections then present a different ontological reading of the laboratory practical drawing on a combination of practice theory and posthumanist science. This seeks to integrate the conceptual and material dimensions of the setting and so pose generative questions about how we might understand learning in this particular context.

What does a pharmacology laboratory practical look like?

The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  The pedagogic rationale for this activity can be seen to be threefold. It offers the students opportunity to practice a procedure that is fairly common to the testing of substances. Secondly, it provides a practical context for the application of pharmacological knowledge. And finally it has a very practical rationale because paracetamol toxicity is one of the most common forms of poisoning worldwide, hence the importance for those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects. The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine its therapeutic/toxic concentration. The assay involved the students in the preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including Eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machines for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide). Based on the reading from a spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity. Essentially, the spectrophotometer measures the degree to which light that is passed through each solution is absorbed by the solution. The reading from the spectrophotometer is then plotted on a graph using Beer’s Law. Consequently, the greater the toxicity of the solution the higher the rate of absorption.

In observing the pharmacology laboratory practical we witness a range of human activity, including students reading array instructions from their work sheets; laboratory partners discussing the procedure, conferring over measurements and interpretations; measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.) and dispensing solutions into test tubes; operating the vortex machine in order to mix the solutions; placing samples into the spectrophotometer and then interpreting the results; charting the graph and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’; and all the time recording the process and results. It is clearly busy. Students are constantly moving around their benches, interacting with each other, using equipment, and writing. The lecturer moves around the room observing, asking pairs and individual students questions, offering advise. The teaching assistants also observe, question and advise. They can be seen standing back and looking across the benches they are responsible for, checking whether students are following the procedure correctly, paying particular attention to the production of the correct solutions. These instructors are some times called upon by students to advise, and at other times they step in at critical moments. Advice is often formative, sometimes summative. But what is the meaning of this activity? What is it about all this activity that leads students to comprehend the discipline of pharmacology? There would be little point to all this activity if it did not enable students to better understand pharmacology, indeed lead to a change in understanding and a new orientation to the world.

Within the scholarship of teaching and learning this issue of understanding is often configured around the privileging of student-focused conceptual change approaches to teaching (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999) or deep learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976). In my role as an academic/educational developer I am frequently encouraging my faculty colleagues to re-orient themselves from a content (disciplinary knowledge) centred approach to teaching to one that considers teaching in light of the student experience of learning. Consequently, much of the knowledge base of my own practice are empirical studies of this student experience (Entwistle & Peterson, 2004; Entwistle & McCune, 2004; Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2010; Trigwell & Prosser, 1991; 2006) and of university teachers’ pedagogic intentions . In many ways this perspective forms a doxic frame of reference for academic/educational development work. My tendency then would be to view the pharmacology laboratory practical through this lens.

An early iteration of this doxic frame is a study conducted by some of the key thinkers in the scholarship of teaching and learning, Keith Trigwell and Michael Prosser (Trigwell & Prosser, 1996). This study sought to examine university teachers’ pedagogic intentions by exploring the extent to which their teaching approaches were student/teacher centred and oriented towards information transmission or conceptual change. This research is particularly relevant here because it focused on the teaching of first year chemistry and physics. Significant is the association between student centred approaches and conceptual change. This analysis was further developed and formed the basis for the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ which has become a fairly widespread instrument for evaluating and mapping teaching styles (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004). The research asserts that deep learning is strongly associated with student centred approaches to teaching. Informed by this approach we might follow the lead offered by Michael Prosser and colleagues and inquire into the relationship between the pharmacology lecturer’s conception of disciplinary knowledge and the teaching strategies and intentions behind the laboratory practical (Prosser, Martin, Trigwell, Ramsden, & Lueckenhausen, 2005). We would want to examine the extent to which the lecturer conceived of chemical knowledge as a set of isolated pieces of information and skills or was based on related concepts, issues and procedures. Furthermore, we might then seek to understand if these concepts, issues and procedures are understood as linked or related in an integrated fashion. We would then observe if this way of understanding chemical knowledge manifested in particular pedagogic practices.

Another useful way of interpreting the activity in the laboratory practical is through ‘Threshold concepts’(Meyer & Land, 2005). Here, the emphasis would be on the identification of particular concepts, processes and practices essential for students to fully enter a disciplinary way of thinking and so promote deep learning. For instance, Vincente Talanquer

(Talanquer, 2015) states that,

If we were to ask chemistry teachers and instructors to list some threshold concepts in chemistry, it is likely that many of them would include concepts such as “Atomicity”, “Chemical Bonding”, “Intermolecular Forces”, and “Chemical Equilibrium”. (p.4)

Talanquer’s argument is that chemistry students often encounter particular difficulties in grasping the underlying meaning of key features of disciplinary knowledge. For instance, students will understand chemical compounds in an ‘additive’ or ‘intrinsic’ fashion, viewing the different elements that make up a compound as static. ‘Learning’ then becomes a matter of adding on bits of knowledge. Transformation of their disciplinary understanding comes about when they grasp the dynamic and emergent properties of both compound and element. This also challenges the pedagogic assumptions made by educators. Talanquer notes the tendency for educators to argue that undergraduate students, particularly in earlier years of study, cannot deal with the overly abstract nature of these ontological aspects of disciplinary knowledge and that they have to concentrate on teacher centred information transfer approaches in order to build a base for later, deeper thinking. This gives rise to what Courtney Ngaia, Hannah Seviana and Vicente Talanquer term a ‘toolbox’ approach of loosely related topics, the introduction of chemical nomenclature, and isolated skills (such as laboratory protocols) (Ngai, Sevian, & Talanquer, 2014).   Instead, these authors propose the need to base the chemistry curriculum on sets of central questions aimed at the development in students of authentic ‘chemical thinking’. They develop this proposal through a discussion of ‘chemical identity’ as a disciplinary specific, but cross-cutting threshold concept. Chemical identity refers to the ways of thinking associated with identifying one entity as distinct from another, and doing so in relation to its extrinsic and dynamic properties.

We could imagine, therefore, viewing the pharmacology laboratory practical using these concepts. As with the ideas suggested earlier, these are also oriented towards developing pedagogic practices that maximize deeper forms of learning. We might be guided, therefore, to inquire into whether the way the laboratory practical is set up encourages students to see both the integrated nature of what they are doing (applying knowledge, operating equipment, following protocols, measuring, interpreting and reporting) and allows both students and educators to uncover implicit assumptions about chemical knowledge and properties. This last point is central to the studies on ‘chemical identity’ conducted by Talanquer and colleagues. This would suggest that any assessment of learning that might be going on in the laboratory practical would be focused on students’ ontological assumptions and how these influence their chemical reasoning.

It is my view that both of these are perfectly legitimate and worthwhile approaches to take. Both offer academic developers and educators more widely a lot of thoughtful and considered material for reflection on academic practice and student learning.   And both are based on similar ethical commitments to maximizing deep learning for as many students as possible. But let’s go back to the initial observation. Here we see a dynamic setting that not only involves interaction between different categories of human agent – student-to-student; student-to-teaching assistant; student-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-teaching assistant; teaching assistant-to-student; and lecturer to all. But we also see the necessary interrelationships between all these human agents and objects of various kinds – work benches, pens, computers (and the algorithms that make them function); presentation software, chemical substances and compounds, vortex machines, spectrophotometers, taps and sinks, measuring machines; as well as concepts, issues and procedures. To speak predominantly of the human and the cognitive, as do the approaches I have reviewed, seems to bypass essential ingredients of the ontological landscape of learning. And so, it is the relevance and importance of ‘artefacts’ that I want to turn to in the next section.

Protocols, epistemic objects, and knowledge centred activity


Beyond the mainstream of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and academic development, are theories of practice that take seriously the interaction of human and non-human that could usefully be applied to the learning context before me. Practice foregrounds “…the acts of making knowledge” (Cetina, 2009, p. 9). This seems apt for an educational setting. And so learning and teaching might be about doing things, and I want to argue it is about human engagements with the world, and specifically how this relationship between human and non-human can be understood as central to epistemic practices. In this section my emphasis is on the role of non-human objects in the mediation of epistemic practice. Therefore, I propose that the particular knowledge being dealt with in the pharmacology laboratory practical is situated within the practices undertaken in the laboratory and mediated by the engagement with non-human objects and the protocols the students follow in their testing of paracetomol toxicity. I will be using the terminology of ‘epistemic objects’ and ‘epistemic practices’, drawn from the work of Karin Knorr Cetina (2009)(epistemic cultures), and Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Jensen, 2014). The array and the protocols the students follow are examples of what Nerland and Jensen call epistemic objects. In this particular case it is the inquiry into the problem of toxicity and how to determine it that organizes the activities undertaken in the laboratory. They provide examples such as the way ‘care’ operates as an epistemic object for nurses, or medical procedures for doctors. Epistemic objects invite purposeful activity such as assessing, evaluating, recording results, etc. It is these practices that we can term epistemic. But first I want to explore how the artefacts that are necessary for epistemic practices can be usefully discussed in terms of tools and signs.

How artefacts work as tools and signs to create a laboratory practical

The scene I observed in the pharmacology laboratory practical had all the semiotic cues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space. The Danish anthropologist Cathrine Hasse has examined the way objects work simultaneously as tools and signs in relation to scientific practice and technology.   For instance, she discusses the use of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.) (Hasse, 2013). Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion.  Building on insights developed by Vygotsky and taken up in activity theory ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness.  The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world as when, proposes Hasse, we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house.  Although signs are oriented to consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments. Again, Hasse notes, as when an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others. Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as we treat artefacts meaningfully.

What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology laboratory practical? Hasse’s argument indicates that learning in this context is related in some way to the meaningful relationship with artefacts, in this case material apparatus as well as concepts and processes. The particular arrangement of bodies, apparatus and the circulation of concepts at play in this space constitute it as a ‘laboratory’, as a particular kind of space linked to specific structures of knowledge and social activity – science. Earlier I noted how different this space was to the social scientific one I am more familiar with, and that the abundance of artefacts was a significant feature of this difference. Mirroring Hasse I could say that it is this specific functioning of artefacts as tools and signs that makes it a pharmacology laboratory practical. It is this arrangement of bodies to artefacts and processes that, according to Karin Knorr Cetina (2009), produces what we call scientific knowledge. This is an approach that views scientific knowledge as an effect of what scientists do (and often do with artefacts) rather than as a disembodied object of cognition.

A laboratory can also bee seen as working simultaneously as a tool (a delineated space for a specific activity) and as a sign (the spatial and social arrangements within the space as well as the artefacts and procedures giving legitimacy to the activity as science). Laboratories gain their social significance in turning aspects of the natural order into epistemic objects that are manipulated through the operation of particular methodologies. Importantly, though, for Knorr Cetina laboratories are not just spaces within which social agents act upon natural objects. The scientist, or the science student in this case, is not the social counterpart to chemical compounds or water or machine. Within the laboratory the students do not deal with chemicals in their natural state but in transformed states as ‘images, extractions, and a multitude of other things’ (Cetina, 2009, p. 32)and instead scientists work with “…object images or with their visual, auditory, or electrical traces, and with their components, their extractions, and their “purified” versions” (p.27). In this particular space the students engage with paracetamol through a trace, through an electronic representation of the degree of light absorption as worked through the (spectrophotometer). The students will seldom engage with the ‘things themselves’. Knorr Cetina’s argument is that scientists are also transformed by the laboratory, molded behaviorally depending on the social organization of specific scientific enterprises and the reliance on artefacts for conducting scientific activity. For instance, she contrasts the epistemic cultures that arise in large scale high energy physics experiments such as those in the CERN particle accelerator, compared to smaller scale molecular biology experiments. Only certain kinds of human activity are available or legitimate within the context of the laboratory, and the objects of the laboratory delimit social agency. There is then, for Knorr Cetina, disunity in practice between these two scientific endeavours, the scientists do different kinds of science, produce different kinds of knowledge. The two examples in her study represent two different epistemic cultures.

The pharmacology laboratory practical takes on the character of a ‘workshop’ similar to the molecular biology work in Knorr Cetina’s study of epistemic cultures. The whole point of the activity in the room is to intervene and manipulate chemical compounds. Scientific endeavor in this context is not framed by a principle of non-interference, in fact the opposite. From this orientation of scientific endeavor comes the actual behaviours the students have to engage in, and which can be captured in the protocols they are required to follow. While the term protocol can often refer to seemingly non-signifying activities, from the perspective of epistemic culture they are in fact deeply significant. Protocols can be seen as epistemic practices related to particular conceptions of scientific endeavor. Similarly, the various artifacts that make up this space as a laboratory, and not some other kind of space, should also be understood as epistemic objects (Cetina, 1997). It would, I think, be a mistake to consider the various machines and containers, for instance, as only having instrumental value (act as tools). Instead, they do epistemic work related to the development of scientific expertise (also act as signs). The ability to understand the toxicity of any paracetamol compound is unthinkable in the absence of these artefacts. Scientific knowledge is therefore bundled with epistemic objects and epistemic practices. There is, then, an intimate relationship between the ‘expert’ (the lecturer as well as the science student) and ‘epistemic objects’ (the way tools function as signs) (Cetina, 1997). The knowledge work of the students can be seen to be done through the interaction with epistemic objects and “…the reaction granted by them” (Cetina, 2008, p. 83). This interaction is mediated via ‘protocols’, the particular procedures by which the scientist conducts an experiment, in this case a paracetamol array. Protocols take on the character of ‘knowledge centred practice’ as defined by Karin Knorr Cetina. This doesn’t mean that protocols enable students to access or acquire knowledge as something that lies outside of their doing in the laboratory. To be proficient (that is approach being expert) means that the various objects such as beakers, pipettes, vortex machines, etc. become almost invisible in the hands of the student. That is the object in mind is that of producing the results. It is to this object of knowledge that the student stands in relation, not the artifacts surrounding them and which are necessary for producing the results. They are a means to an end, simple tools. It is only when something goes wrong that the student will suddenly be in relation to the artefact directly.

This routinized mode of behavior means that the boundaries between human and non-human, and between artefacts blurs. Let me give an example. As part of the protocol students use Eppendorf pipettes to measure out specified quantities of water solution. On first attempt the student may be all too aware of the separation of human mind and eye and hand with the instrument of the pipette and the solution to be measured. It has an awkward quality about it, the movement stilted, slow, considered. However, once the student has become more proficient the boundary between all of these becomes less obvious. This resembles the transparency between objects and human and non-human found by Karin Knorr Cetina in her study of epistemic cultures cited earlier (Cetina, 2009). This kind of routinized procedure is common to much laboratory and scientific practice. While the practice contained by the protocol is a knowledge centred practice, and thus an epistemic practice, it is also mindless in that students might not, in any particular moment, be conscious subjects related in a direct way with certain artefacts or processes. It is the practices of holding pipettes, manipulating pipettes, picking up beakers, holding test tubes, reading instructions or the visual displays on electronic weighing machines that are most evident. Far from being an external, disembodied object of mind, knowledge of paracetamol toxicity is bound up in the protocols, and thus entangled with instruments, processes, chemical compounds, computer algorithms, digital displays, as well as concepts and equations. Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014), for instance, have investigated the way procedures are essential for how nurses and computer engineers engage with knowledge. The procedures and various artefacts this entails (texts and documents for nurses, and information technologies for the engineers) directly mediate their professional learning. Also, these intermediary objects function simultaneously as tools and signs (c.f. Hasse, 2013). These artefacts mediate understanding of how certain chemical structures interact with the human organism in potentially dangerous ways. This knowledge is both embedded in the practices I observe in the laboratory and distributed across them, no matter how mundane they may seem.



The totality of action as epistemic object and the dance of agency

In the previous section I examined some consequences of moving away from the acquisition metaphor of learning and how this confronts us with the idea of learning as a ‘doing’, to borrow from Karin Barad’s work (Barad, 2007). The intent was to make explicit the humanist and social-constructivist presumptions of learning entailing the inter-action of quite separate entities – knowledge and the knower. I sought to extend this understanding by introducing the power of artefacts as mediating this relationship, and giving artefacts a distinctive sense of agency or power in this process, in particular the elaborated discussion of artefacts functioning as tools and signs. I gave special attention to the way the laboratory protocol followed by the students had epistemic value, that it was a practice of knowing. But there still remained a distinction between knower, knowledge, and mediating artefacts. The work of posthumanist scholars invites us to further extend such understandings and to examine the ‘agency’ that ‘things’ have, to glimpse the tantalizing possibility that test tubes, Eppendorf pipettes, and chemical compounds themselves can be regarded as agentic. Through this lens the laboratory protocol, I argue, becomes a ‘dance of agency’ (Pickering, 2010)between human and non-human. What we call learning is an effect of this performance.

From paracetamol toxicity as epistemic object to array as phenomenon

Karen Barad’s (2007) work critiques the separation of scientific practice, such as measuring quantities of paracetamol, or reading the spectrophotometer display from scientific knowledge and theory. Although her work focuses on particle physics she details how the act of measuring or observing cannot be separated from scientific knowledge. For example, she considers the act of observing light scattered from an atomic particle and captured on a fixed photographic plate, rather like taking a photo. The ‘phenomenon’ or ‘event’ is neither the atomic particle nor the light itself, but the light as captured by the measuring apparatus. As with a camera the photograph is not the observed object itself but an effect of capturing the light on light sensitive material. The phenomenon is an ‘event’ that incorporates the particles, the problem under consideration (the epistemic object) and the act of measuring/observing (epistemic practice) (Barad, 2003, p. 171). Following Barad the paracetamol array and protocol as a whole is the phenomenon, rather than the toxicity of paracetamol itself. The phenomenon involves a related set of active elements including the lecturer’s intentions for the laboratory practical, the activities of the teaching assistants, the students’ engagement with the task, the functioning of the apparatus, and the action of the chemical compounds. It is worth remembering that I noted earlier the students do not encounter the toxicity of paracetamol directly. They encounter an electronic display of the degree of light absorption. And it is this that stands for toxicity.   Similarly, the toxicity of paracetamol has to be considered as an effect of the measuring activity and not as an abstract quality of the chemical compound. After all, the problem of paracetamol toxicity emerges from the relationship between the compound and the human organism. Toxicity is not in and of itself a quality of the chemical compound outside of its relationship with an organism and the mechanism by which that compound enters the human body. This reiterates the main point of the previous section, that knowledge and learning are effects of the phenomenon as a whole.


Knowledge as performance and the dance of agency

This approach takes us beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ and to an understanding of ‘science-as-performance’. Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and explores how in reality the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology laboratory practical by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency, following the sequence of activity required by the protocol:

  Human Agency Human Passivity
Sequence 1 ·      Reading array instructions

·      Discussion with bench partner

·      Measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)

·      Dispensing solutions into test tubes

·      Operating vortex machine to mix paracetamol solutions

·      Recording the process

·      Waiting for the solutions to mix and settle
Sequence 2 ·      Placing samples into the spectrophotometer ·      Waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine
Sequence 3 ·      Interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer

·      Charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’

·      Recording and reporting the results

We see here that what I previously referred to as epistemic practices correlates with human agency in the laboratory practical. If we take sequence 1 the acts of measuring, recording, dispensing, mixing are classic examples of epistemic practice. However, this epistemic practice folds into and around moments where the students have to wait on the action of chemical compounds or machines to do their work. In these moments it is the non-human artefacts that have agency. For example, while operating the vortex machine it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait. This is visually observed in the laboratory where we see the deliberate, if at times hesitant, movement of the students as they co-ordinate their actions in relation to the artefacts they rely upon to conduct the array. In one moment limbs are moved to enact measuring, or holding, or writing. In the next the student stands and waits, passive for a moment while the lead is taken over by the vortex machine. The activity takes on the character of a choreographed performance, hence the utility of Pickering’s terminology.

Viewed this way, as Barad argues, it is difficult to think of scientific knowledge as some how abstracted from the doing of science. Pharmacological knowledge is inseparable from the handling of Eppendorf pipettes, from measuring, from waiting for a vortex machine to do its work, from encountering the visual display of the spectrophotometer and performing an act of imagination to read this as being ‘toxicity’. It is inseparable from the benches and the physical organization of the laboratory. In other words, learning is something accomplished by corporeal beings, in specific places, and with artefacts. It is not a purely cognitive event. If the ‘science’ the students are engaged in is a phenomenon, as Barad claims, then learning is also an effect of the phenomenon and so is entangled with non-human action.



I began this paper by making reference to how my attention was drawn to the abundance of artefacts in this space, and how the particular relationship between people and artefacts in a specific location (a university) constituted this space as a pharmacology laboratory practical. The abundance of artefacts in this space matters to learning. Building on the notions of epistemic objects and practices, in this conclusion I want to propose that it is worth considering knowledge as embedded. This approach requires us to understand learning in ways that take use beyond that normally conveyed by humanist philosophies, and requires us to think differently about the aim of academic/educational development.

Having said that the students do not engage with paracetamol toxicity directly, this does not mean the students only engage with representations of the real or the material. Along with the symbolic (texts, diagrams, speech) the students do engage with a material reality. In the humanist paradigm this material world can sometimes get lost, obfuscated, hidden. It is not present in the same way as thought, the cognitive, and language. Yet, I hope I have convinced you that in spaces such as the pharmacology laboratory practical we are confronted with an abundance of material artefacts, we are confronted with matter. Through epistemic practices students encounter not just a symbolic world of representations (which we often take to be knowledge) but also a world of material meaning. Students’ ideas, concepts, and theories of chemical interactions with the human organism have to be understood as part of a wider material configuration that includes chemical compounds, measuring instrumentation, visual displays of light absorption, benches, pens, computers, and other bodies (the lecturer and the post doctoral students) (for a detailed discussion of material configuration and scientific practice see Barad, 2007). It is not the case, I argue, that science education and the material world are separate entities. It is through the calibration and choreographing of bodies, artefacts, and concepts that students might cross thresholds into different ways of being in the world.

Consequently, the artefacts are not neutral but are products of particular conceptions of what constitutes science. The Eppendorf pipette, paracetamol compounds, and the spectrophotometer are brought together in a particular kind of relationship with the students’ bodies in a specific place; and the students’ behaviours are modified and regulated by these artefacts. It is these particular, rather than general, articulations that we can call the phenomenon, and it is the phenomenon that is the epistemic object and simultaneously constitutes and envelopes the epistemic practices. This is why scientific knowledge is inseparable from specific scientific practices. It is why the abundance of artefacts ‘matter’; it is why learning is not something separate from the flow or dance of agency.

All of this has consequences for the practice of academic development. If academic development is framed by metaphors of acquisition then it mirrors the conception of knowledge as somehow dis-embedded from social practice and the material world (Boud & Hager, 2012). I want to finish, therefore, with some questions that are worth pursuing in order to re-frame academic/educational development practice. If we take the posthuman perspective seriously then what becomes the epistemic object of academic practice? What are the consequences of this for what constitute our epistemic practices? I believe that these two questions can form the basis for a productive research agenda.

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Are We All Indolent Academics in Need of a Good Kick Up the Arse?

It is clear the conversation’s at an end.  He is maddened by our way of life.  He is exacerbated by the disarray he has discovered in our village.  He sighs dramatically, to leave us in no doubt.  

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013), p. 122

It has become familiar to feel that the conversation on the purpose of higher education is now closed, that politicians and university managers are exacerbated by what they see as our disarray.  We are, in their eyes, indolent, unproductive, and in need of husbandry.

However, Jim Crace’s story refers to the dispossession of common land from England’s peasantry and the conglomeration of those once shared lands into larger, private estates.  Yet, academics face the same kind of misappropriation (of academic labour) and privatisation (of knowledge).  

As with the enclosure acts of the 16th century the change in entitlement serves to increase the standing of an elite.

And it is this process of aggrandisement that forms the focus of Mats Alvesson’s book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization“.  In the preface to the book Alvesson notes:

In today’s society, a strong emphasis on ‘it must look good’, and preferably even shine, is vital for the success of individuals, occupational groups, and organizations. (p. ix)

So, in the modern university we all have to shine?  Seems like it.

Alvesson argues that the modern university is characterised by three elements:

  • zero-sum game
  • grandiosity
  • illusion tricks.

Zero-sum game

In a time of mass higher education the ‘positional value’ of higher education institutions becomes even more important.  At an institutional level this can mean the close management of personal academic careers/performance.  Contributions to the field or to knowledge or to learning are increasingly occupied and appropriated in the service of institutional ambition.  Academic freedom as the desire to follow the line of an idea or inquiry is not enough; and can be seen as detrimental to both the institution and personal career prospects.

As individuals we are caught up in the zero-sum game where our ‘choices’ (types of knowledge, types of research, our values) are seen to be potentially damaging to institutional ambition.  The accomplishment of higher rankings (accruing of positional value) is at the expense of the lower ranking institutions, so increasing the risks involved in the zero-sum game.  Internally, institutions are resorting to different forms of ‘internal selectivity’ – distinguishing between those deemed research excellent from those who ‘only teach’.

At the personal level we can feel a fundamental disconnect between the institutionally defined identity and those values and ideas that animate us as educators and researchers.


In the modern university we are all expected to be ambitious.

But this is not the ambition to incrementally improve our teaching, to enhance our understanding of learning, to deepen our grounding in an area of knowledge, to explore new intellectual vistas.  Ambition is caught up in the spectacle of producing so many academic articles for high ranking journals (but be less concerned with the public articulation of research); and to do this regardless of the kinds of scholarly conversations we want to conduct or who we want to have those conversations with (or rather to disregard those who do not feed the zero-sum game and grandiose desire).  Academic communities of practice can be re-engineered to fit the grandiose institutional ambitions to gain greater and greater positional value.

This is a world where substance does not appear to matter.  It is a world where parochial networks proclaim themselves to be ‘national centres’, where ‘excellence’, ‘world leading’ adorn the titles of organisational units.

Illusion Tricks

In part this reflects a shift not just from ‘being’ to ‘having’ (Fromm) but from ‘having’ to ‘appearing‘ (Debord). 

This refers to various equality or quality assurance policies that remain illusory, having little purchase on the reality of student or academic daily life.  It also manifests in the plethora of what Alvesson calls ‘pseudo-events’.  The periodic development of university strategic plans are good examples, as are the quality assurance processes such as research assessment exercises.  The ‘consultation’ with stakeholders that can accompany such ‘events’ are often clear examples of empty containers.

Is it any wonder then that we become sick, that ill-health and mental distress are on the increase.  

These are notes towards an autoethnographic study of academic wellbeing in the neoliberal university.

Is the term ‘academic’ now empty in higher education?

I have recently had my annual review.  This is not the annual review we are all becoming familiar with as part of the performance management culture of higher education, but as part of my ‘probation’.  Yes, you read that correctly, I am on probation.

Approaching 20 years in academia to find, on taking this job, that I would be on probation felt, well, insulting.  Obviously, it isn’t enough to meet the requirements of the job and so be employed by the institution.  Neither is it enough to undertake an annual review of performance that asks all the same questions as my probationary review meeting.  No, instead I have to be treated as if all my previous experience (which contributed to me being offered the post in the first place) was worthless.

Many of the questions posed in the meeting continued in this negative vein.  And I am using negative here as in the way much of my academic practice was negated, rendered negative or simply invisible.

The academic networks I was embedded in prior to this job were construed as  hindrances, and viewed as things that held me (back?) to my previous employment.  The fact that one of those associations was a network I had initiated and had organised its first conference appeared to be irrelevant.  I wondered whether the ethical/political focus of that network on migration and racism was just seen as unworthy of my current job specification.

And then there was the inevitable question about research funding.  They did inquire into what writing I was currently working on.  I suppose this passes as an interest in what us academics are supposed to be engaged in – knowledge.  But it is research grants that our institutions are most interested in.

It is worth thinking about this carefully, and about the way valued research is equated with grant capture, that is how knowledge is reduced to money.

If our value is measured less in terms of the quality of our teaching and the way we work with knowledge, and more in terms of grant capture, can we really say we are engaged in academic activity?

Of course probation can work both ways.  As I sat there it was the institution that was on probation.  I have yet to write the report.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience but was prompted by re-reading the blog post by Mark Carrigan on the ‘Accelerated Academy‘ and the article by Ros Gill referred to in Mark’s post.

what is the point of education? why education should be about the cultivation of humane citizens


I have just listened to Derek Jarman‘s “Blue” on BBC Radio.

Of course I saw the original film and have the book, though I never got to visit his garden (pictured above).

“Blue” is a touching and poetic account of his struggles with HIV/AIDS which was eventually to take his corporeal life, though his life-force lives on in his work, the love he bestowed on humanity, in the continued fight for equality and social justice.

It made me reflect on what the purpose of higher education is (as I have done before).  As the university seeks to optimise all our efforts towards institutional advancement but with apparently little regard for knowledge or wisdom, it is worth stepping back and reflecting.  Listening to this version of Derek Jarman’s prose-poetry acted to sustain such thought.

In the prose-poem he refers to the Memorial Quilt stitched together to commemorate many of those who died of HIV/AIDS.  It made me think of friends who, like Derek, sat in waiting rooms, received medication, were subjected to abuse, but whose humanity was as startling in their dying as it was in their living.

How this contrasts with the lifelessness of modern academia and academic management in particular.  How lacking in humanity is this metric driven edifice.

Maybe I would be better off visiting Derek’s garden so that I can be witness to some true humanity and wisdom!

Helen Kara

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